Human Rights: The Mass Media’s Bogeyman?

Published: 30 September 2014

Country: UK

By Prof. Eric Heinze, QMUL, London

Liverpool_Conference‘If the tabloids didn’t have human rights, they’d have UFOs.’  That was one of many ideas animating a conference held in September entitled ‘Human Rights in the UK Media: Representation and Reality’, at the University of Liverpool.

Organised by human rights specialist Dr. Michelle Farrell of the university’s School of Law and Social Justice, this interdisciplinary event hosted experts in media, law, politics and social sciencesTopics ranged from terrorism to Scarlett Johansson to Tibbles the cat. The majority of human rights cases are brought by ordinary people.  Some have suffered real outrages.  But the tabloids, one of the leading conference themes ran, still hype the UK Human Rights Act (HRA) as a ‘Charter for terrorists, rapists, and paedophiles’.

Enacted in 1998, the HRA echoes the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a centrepiece of the Council of Europe.  Some tabloids routinely—no doubt, deliberately—conflate the Council with the European Union, a wholly separate organisation, in order to play the Europhobic card.

The HRA has in fact long been recognised by UK jurists as codifying age-old British norms.  But throw the word ‘Europe’ in, and the tabloids—echoing a fair few politicians—blast it as foreign interference.  In a single stroke both British human rights and European institutions end up misrepresented.

When the tabloids report the judicial decisions they favour, such as victories for free speech, the phrase ‘human rights’ mysteriously vanishes.  But when an admittedly unsavoury character like the murderer John Hirst agitates for prisoners’ rights, suddenly the phrase resurfaces as ‘the brooding menace’.

As one speaker noted, simply placing the words ‘human rights’ in quotation marks, in order to exoticise the rarest kinds of cases, serves to shroud the entire system beneath a cloak of dodgy dealing.  The sheer demand by another prisoner for access to pornography was branded, according to another conference speaker, as human rights again gone mad.  In fact, no such unqualified human right has been upheld at the UK or European level.

Conference delegates were far from shunning all criticism of human rights.  Experts have plenty of criticisms about how human rights are interpreted or applied.  Scholars have long debated both the advantages and the risks of translating pressing social problems into the language of human rights.  Some scholars feel that excessive emphasis on rights pushes individuals too quickly into courtrooms, if they even get that far, and discourages them from engaging in the open political processes in which democracy’s battles ought to be waged.

But debates like that quickly become cerebral.  They lack the screaming headlines about social depravity and Britain going to the dogs.

Is there a difference between what the press writes and what its audience reads?  The tabloid-reading public quickly becomes accustomed to the hype—which, after all, is no shriller on human rights than on countless other issues, from plane crashes to celebrity gossip.  Some readers, it seems, throw in a pinch of salt.  Three quarters of respondents to one poll agreed with the ‘Charter for Criminals’ image of human rights.  At the same time, an impressive 80 percent felt that human rights do create a fairer society.

Those figures are hard to reconcile.  They may suggest that imbalanced coverage has indeed skewed the public’s understanding of the issues, yet without altogether undermining people’s sense of fairness, and their ability to see it reflected in human rights.  Perhaps they do grasp the advantages of rights.  They know the day may come when they find themselves mistreated, falsely accused, or otherwise denied basic decency.

We must also ask whether the tabloids are the only media worthy of criticism.  Although the tabloids reach more people, the high-brow press reaches more powerful people.  Important distortions occur, in my view, not only through tabloid-style manipulation, but even among the most committed and principled staff of the BBC, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, journalists who genuinely wish to approach human rights matters with accuracy and fairness.  The sheer realities of the media world render adequate coverage impossible even at journalism’s most conscientious levels.

The media would, after all, be a different kind of beast if it meticulously recorded every important development within human rights, with the full context that each situation requires.  Inevitably, as one speaker reminded us, ‘News is about what’s new’.  Rape has long been a problem in India, yet needed a high-profile scandal before the media woke up to it.  The media’s first concern, today more than ever, is to find and to keep readers.  An editor’s preference for the dazzling or provocative story is, again, hardly unique for coverage of human rights.  It’s what the media have always done, and never more so than in the electronic age.

Democracy and human rights may seem deeply intertwined, yet their rapport has never been entirely cozy.  Witnessing the dangers of democratic majorities—who, particularly in moments of political crisis, could be whipped up to do dangerous things—the authors of modern human rights documents saw rights as a means of avoiding democracy’s excesses.  Human rights are, on that view, a tool for preserving democracy by placing limits on it.  Human rights do, then, maintain an undeniable elitism, an uneasiness about the dangers of majorities trampling on the rights of minorities or dissidents.

Even if the popular media are patently guilty of distorting human rights, are we, too, guilty of institutional elitism when we spurn the media for treating human rights as something less than sacrosanct?  Should we view the tabloids as attacking not human rights as such, but the opacity often surrounding its norms and institutions?

Tension between human rights necessities and media realities are inevitable.  But that does not leave the media without means for improving their coverage.  Journalists must never assume that simply ‘reporting the facts’ of a case will always accurately portray all its human rights implications, nor that those implications will always be as obvious as journalists may wish.

Gaps in knowledge ought to be on the table, and not an excuse for sidelining issues.  Countless people have been killed, brutalised, or displaced over years in the Democratic Republic of Congo with only minimal coverage from the mass media, who just found the situation too complicated.  The more conscious journalists become of the highly contextual nature of human rights, the more easily they will recognise pitfalls within human rights reporting.